This is one of those books I would never have heard of before internet. But Litlove praised it so much that I bought it as a present for Mr. Smithereens. He did like it, I guess (in his not really talkative way), so I wanted to try it too.
Now, I think it might have been a disastrous choice of a present for a spouse!
Except if you want to make sure that your own marriage remains ensconced in very conventional standards, that is.
I mean, if I had been in Mr. Smithereens’ shoes, I would have been appalled to get such a present. I would have endlessly nagged or worried (or both) as to why on earth your spouse would think you’d enjoy reading about lots of dysfunctional couples or unhappy spouses or cheating, abusive husbands or seemingly peaceful ménage à trois, or all of the above. But Mr. Smithereens didn’t nag (men don’t do that, well, not too often, do they?).
Or maybe he just enjoyed the gossip.
All the uncommon arrangements Roiphe presents in details (don’t fear it might be gritty, it’s not: lots of research and balanced, never judgmental analysis) essentially come down to disastrous, unsustainable personal choices. Seven artistic or literary couples (among which Elizabeth von Armin, Vanessa Grant, Katherine Mansfield, Ottoline Morrell and H.G. Wells) have tried to live by new standards and turn their back on Victorian rigid conventions. But even if freedom in relationships was something new (the book spans from 1910 to the Thirties), feelings of jealousy, emotional abuse, sincere passion, resentment and betrayal were nothing new. In short, the arrangements ended up in bitter tears more often than not. Most of these intellectual men and women tried to rationalize and justify at length their choices, but it didn’t mean that they could control their hearts.
It certainly does shed a new light for me on the literature of this period (if only to say that what might sound like a great idea on paper does not translate into ideal circumstances in real life). It also reminded me on the experiments from the 1960s-70s when people challenged the notion of couplehood. In some ways today’s society does seem a lot more conservative, or at least a lot less idealist and prone to experiments than these periods.
Apparently Mr. Smithereens hasn’t been offended by my choice of book for him. He even offered me the memoir of Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, Deceived by Kindness. It will be nice to be able to follow this theme into another book!